Mar 31, 2011
Big Hulking Mess
With the summer movie season rapidly approaching, we are again hit with a glut of comic book superhero movies. And now that television is jumping on the superhero bandwagon, there are more examples than ever. NBC recently trotted out the woefully underappreciated The Cape. Next year they will bring us Wonder Woman. This summer, you can enjoy Green Lantern, Captain America, Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Super. Next year will bring us The Avengers. And there still are Dark Knight Rising, Iron Man 3, Wolverine 2, Superman (again), Spiderman (again), JLA, Ghost Rider 2, and many more on the horizon. It is open season on comic books superheroes.
When I was thinking about this, it made me happy. In general, I love this genre of films. Sure, there are exceptions (Steel, Spawn, Ghost Rider). For the most part, though, I like me some comic book movies. Over the next few years, we will see most of the big names paraded across entertainment screens. One of the films I am the most excited for is The Avengers. I still can't believe Marvel is actually putting this film out - with all of these huge comic book guys in one film. It takes some guts, to be sure. And the fact that they got the big actors on board is crazy. Throw in that it is directed by Joss Whedon, and that is a first weekend/wait in line kind of movie.
When you read about that movie, one thing that pops out is that it includes Mark Ruffalo playing The Hulk. Now, this is not the Eric Bana/Ang Lee version. It is not the Edward Norton version. This is a third incarnation of the big green ugly - all in less than ten years. It made me think. How did The Hulk - one of the most popular and recognizable characters in the Marvel lineup - end up so poorly handled? How did it go from being a headliner character to a sideshow? I have had some thoughts on The Hulk. A few year ago, I put some of them into my review of the last film version of the comic. But I wanted to revisit and expand on this examination.
Alter Ego / Hero Disassociation
One of the biggest challenges in making a successful comic book movie is to make the actor portraying believable in both the super hero role and the regular guy role. This is a challenge because so often the superhero is actually computer generated. It is easier in characters like Batman or the X-Men because their faces are still there, giving a connection to the human in the costume. Iron Man worked because Robert Downey Jr was just that freaking good as Tony Stark - all the time. Even in the computer generated costume, we still saw shots of Downey and heard his voice. Hulk is a major issue because THERE IS NO SIMILARITIES between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. You could cast Laurence Olivier as Banner and the movie would suck. The Hulk is a big lurching monosyllabic monster crushing things. There is no humanity there - at least not at this point in the mythos with which these movies are dealing. So, the actor has to be able to pull of a good Bruce Banner (something Norton didn't do). But they are helpless when it comes to The Hulk. It becomes completely dependent on special effects. It is a rare movie that can completely computer generate a character on screen that seems real ALL THE TIME. Our brains tell us that it is fake. So we know the Hulk isn't something to invest in emotionally.
Misguided Audience Sympathy
The main conflict of the Hulk story is that Banner wants to GET RID OF the Hulk. So we sympathize with him, hoping he can live a normal life. But at the same time, the only enjoyment we get in the movie is when the Hulk is rampaging and destroying everything. This causes a mixed reaction from the audience. The dude is only a hero when he is the Hulk. But he doesn't want to be the Hulk. He wants to be free. So we should want him to be free. But when he is free, he is just a boring nerd. We are bored when he is free. So we want him to stay imprisoned. Or else we feel imprisoned. How can you have a superhero who hates being that hero?
Hulk is a Lousy Hero
Here's the honest truth about the Hulk: he makes a better villain than hero. Marvel figured this out a few years ago. The powers that be got (Iron Man, Reed Richards) worried about him being too unpredictable, so they stranded him in outer space. He ended up on some battle scarred planet and ended up taking over - spawning a son who has even fewer redeeming qualities than himself. Then he returned to Earth and wrecked havoc on those people who sent him away. In any futuristic views of the Marvel universe, Hulk's offspring are always bad. He makes a great villain. But he's a terrible hero. It's like cheering for Mr. Hyde or the werwolf. They really just need to decide once and for all to turn him evil. They keep playing with that - Red Hulk, Skaar, Old Man Logan. Just pull the trigger. Part of my reasons for that is in the next point.
Hulk's Villains are Too Powerful
If villains get to be TOO strong, cool, and tough - even though we want to see them taken down - we still won't believe it. This is what I call the WWE problem. In wrestling you have wrestlers who people love, and ones they hate. And to advance story lines, you push the "faces" but play up the strength of the "heels." Back in the WCW/NWO days, this was never more true than in the Sting vs. Scott "Big Poppa Pump" Steiner feud. The problem was, the more Steiner bulked up, the more people realized there was no way Sting would actually win. Steiner was a collegiate wrestler, so he actually knew wrestling moves. And he had more steroids in him than a Yankees' clubhouse. He would have torn Sting's head off. It was the same with Kent Shamrock when he was in WWE. He would have destroyed everyone. This guy was a multiple time MMA champion who could break your ankle in ten seconds. No one could beat him. So you have to come up with increasingly ludicrous ways for the face to win. The same thing happens in superhero movies. The Hulk himself is a pretty big bad dude. So to give him a challenge, you have to create a bigger villain. You have to have these bizarre villains with Hulk because, face it, he can't fight a bank robber. It's not like he can become a defender of a city like Batman. He has to have these big ultra-powerful baddies or else it is a joke. Who's he going to fight? Mole Man? Zeus? Venom? He would crush all of them. So here comes Abomination. Now, straight up, the humans behind the beasts are probably pretty even. Banner is smart and a bit buff (mostly wimpy). The baddie is strong and smart, but with a temper/ego problem. Now, he gets TWO doses of Super Soldier serum. This is the same stuff that made Captain America, right? TWO doses. And then he gets the Hulk treatment. With how big and tough he was, combined with his complete lack of morals or ethics to weigh him down, he would have KILLED Hulk. There is no way Hulk can win. The heel was too strong for the face. (This is something that plagues comic book movies, especially in sequels when villains are jammed in like gumball machines.) In a normal comic book movie, the bad guy needs to be as strong or stronger than the hero, but with a fatal flaw. How can someone be stronger than Hulk? [This is one concern I have about The Avengers. What kind of villain is big enough that you need all those heroes? That's when weirdos like Galactus and Darkseid and Doomsday and Apocalypse come into play. I hate those villains - just TOO big and bad.]
Lack of Cohesive Story Line
This is mainly for comic book dorks. Most comic book characters have a pretty clear story. They have their origin, their reasons for becoming a hero, their main antagonists. Things may change from time to time, but if you mess with things too much, it gets to be to hard to follow. Spiderman did this years ago. The title almost got killed because it was such a mess. They had him out in space fighting parasites and all kinds of bizarre stuff. You can see now, they have gone back to the beginning with him. He's a student who is Spiderman. No one knows who he is. He just is doing his thing. With the Hulk, they have changed so many things over the years. There were times when he would be like a dumb crazed animal when in Hulk mode. Other times he could access Bruce Banner's memories. At other times, he was completely rational and intelligent and Hulk all the time. There's been grey hulk and green hulk and red hulk. He's been able to jump miles in a leap. He's basically invincible. Then he isn't. He's a good guy. He's a bad guy. He's off planet. He's back. It is hard to follow. So, those true fans of the title aren't really sure what version they are going to see on screen. It hasn't helped that there were two vastly different versions in the theaters so close together. Even if fans did get attached to one particular version, it probably won't last very long.
Maybe Marvel is finally getting the right idea. Instead of having a whole big massive movie hanging on a character that hasn't seemed to connect with audiences, tuck him away into a big cast of characters. See how Ruffalo does with this Hulk. Maybe, if it works, they can try a spinoff or something. Give the character a chance to establish some kind of footing and ground rules for his existence first. I'm not sure. The character seems like it could be cool on screen. But I think they may have to go for a really risky move - like do the Planet Hulk series instead. Let him go crazy and just be destructive Hulk in a world that can handle it. Don't pull in the whole Banner angle. Just make him the green monster generating all kinds of mayhem all over the universe. That would be a better fit than some angsty drama set on Earth - where he is just too big and strong to function in a normal setting.